Journalism schools can fill the local news gap
The recently released federal budget makes it clear. There is money on the table to help support local news in this country.
Fifty million dollars over the next five years will go to non-government organizations to support local journalism in underserved areas.
And, the federal government is pledging to look at new models that would allow “private giving and philanthropic support for trusted, professional, non-profit news and local journalism”
But while the first proposal is a clear commitment, the second one is only a pledge at this point, and appears to be a while away from becoming anything more than that.
And there are still lots of questions about how both proposals would work in practice.
And so, while there is money there, what’s also clear is that there will continue to be plenty of discussion in the months ahead about how to best support local journalism in Canada.
I think there’s been a missing element in that conversation to this point. I don’t think there’s been enough discussion about the role post-secondary journalism programs and the students in those programs could play in helping to revitalize the industry and support local democracy.
Here in the journalism program at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ont. we embarked on a project last fall that we’re calling the Local News Initiative. We started by holding a public forum at the college in September. One hundred and fifty people attended a discussion where we talked about the state of local news in the Quinte region; asked how it could be made stronger than it already is; and talked about the role our program could play in helping to achieve that goal.
I should say that, in some ways, we are blessed in the Quinte region when it comes to the state of our local news ecosystem. Quinte is home to two locally-owned broadcasters that operate newsrooms that cover what’s happening in the area. Both those newsrooms also operate websites that provide local news coverage. The local daily – the Intelligencer – has suffered deep cuts in its newsroom, but it still employs a team of smart journalists with a deep commitment to this area. There are also weekly newspapers in both Prince Edward and Hastings Counties, as well as a community radio station and an online-only news source based in Picton.
The region’s local news providers do a good job of keeping audiences informed about what’s happening in the area. But I think it’s fair to say – and we heard some of this during our forum – that what there’s not enough of in the area’s local news coverage is depth and context – the ability of local news providers to help their audience make sense of what’s happening in the place where they live.
So we asked our students to take what they heard during the forum and use it to craft a mission statement for how our student newsroom would operate in the school year ahead. Our newsroom – QNet News – provides content on social media; a website – qnetnews.ca; for a local weekly newscast run on the local YourTV; and a daily afternoon news run on 91X – the campus/community station run out of Loyalist College.
That was the first step in switching up the focus of the initiative from what’s happening in a specific news ecosystem to how our journalism program and our students can help make it better. We hadn’t got too far down that road when our focus shifted once again.
That’s because the news of the Postmedia-Torstar deal at the end of November had a really devastating effect on Northumberland County to the west of us. The closure of the daily newspaper, Northumberland Today, meant the area lost a major news source. There are still local media operating in the county – two radio stations, a weekly newspaper, an online magazine and a number of bloggers. But there’s also a news hole in the county even when it comes to basic news coverage.
So our Local News Initiative is now working with a concerned group of citizens and local journalists in Northumberland to try to figure out what we can do to help address the underserved area to the west of us. We’ll be hosting another public forum in Cobourg on March 20 where we’ll attempt to come up with some initial ideas on how we can help to support the creation of a more vibrant and viable local news ecosystem in Northumberland County. But it’s important to our approach that we engage the community as we work toward finding solutions that address issues like the quality of journalism and the economic sustainability of local news.
We’re not sure yet exactly where this is headed. But it strikes us that our program and our students can play a role in helping to do just that. And that the work that we’ve started on here can be replicated elsewhere.
Where exactly we’re headed is still up in the air.
Will we operate as a kind of wire service – providing content for existing local news providers through our QNet newsroom? What about some sort of system where a community hires a graduating student journalist(s) for a period of time to provide local news coverage? That community accesses and provides financial support – perhaps from different levels of government — and the work is overseen by an arms-length community organization made up of engaged citizens.
Those are just two of many possibilities. There are many others. The point is that in many areas in this province and across this country there is a pool of talented and ambitious journalists eager to get into the working world. Can we use that pool, marry it with some financial help from different levels of government, attach it to work already being done in many journalism programs, and build better local news ecosystems in more communities across the country? I think it’s an idea worth talking about.
Andy Clarke is a professor in the journalism program at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ont.